Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Free books

Lately I've been thinking a lot about free books and what they mean for authors. Specifically, I've been wondering what the lack or presence of DRM (Digital Rights Management) does for e-books, and whether the unregulated sharing of e-books will spell doom to authors.

As a reader, I'm a big fan of e-books. I've moved enough times to appreciate how light they are, and how very easy to store. Obviously, my e-reader is not about to replace my bookshelves full of beloved hardcovers, but I see a real possibility that e-books will replace my collection of mass market books. After all, mass market books are, in my opinion, good in two ways: they're affordable, and they're portable. Electronic books are also affordable and much more portable.

Since I got my e-reader just over a year ago, I have actually purchased more hardcover books with the expectation that clearing my mass markets off of my shelves (and replacing them with digital copies) will leave more space for the books I really love. Now, mind you, I haven't actually gotten rid of a single book in that year+ but one of these days... Well, let's face it, I've always been better at accumulating books than getting rid of them. In my ideal world, hardcover books would come with a free digital copy, in the same way that some Blu-ray discs do... but I digress.

As an author, I worry that ebooks are entirely too easy to pirate, especially without DRM protection. DRM protection is what prevents you from reading a kindle file on your nook, or vice verse, and purports to prevent readers from copying their e-books and distributing them to the world for free.

However, even books with DRM are vulnerable to piracy. After all, there are computer experts around the world who jump at the opportunity to do things other people say they "can't," and who can blame them? The fact is that a sufficiently motivated technology expert will eventually be able to strip DRM from any file, if they can't already.

Which leaves me wondering if the advent of e-books is also the end of authors getting paid for their work. Obviously, I hope it isn't.

Still, there are a couple of authors who have given me hope: Cory Doctorow and Neil Gaiman.

Cory Doctorow, a journalist and sci-fi author, decided back in 2003 to make all of his books available for free as e-books. He releases his books under a Creative Commons license agreement which gives the reader the right to share and adapt the e-book provided he or she do so in a noncommercial fashion, release any adaptations under the same Creative Commons agreement, and give credit where credit is due by attributing the original work to the author.

Doctorow explains his decision in a Forbes article here. Essentially, Doctorow encourages his readers to download and share his e-books, with only one request, that, if they like the book, they, "buy it or donate a copy to a worthy, cash-strapped institution." Since his books have consistently outperformed his publisher's sales expectations, there is reason to believe that, at least in his case, free e-books actually stimulate sales.

Neil Gaiman has not gone to the same extremes, though he has released some of his books for free for a limited period of time. Gaiman, a sci-fi/fantasy author is a patron of the Open Rights Group which is a group in the UK that works to protect digital rights. Last year they interviewed him, and recently a clip from that interview went viral. Gaiman also posted a blog entry on the issue here. In the interview Gaiman made a particularly interesting point. He points out (I'm paraphrasing, watch the video for his exact wording) that if you think about your favorite authors, the ones who have published multiple books, and think about how you got your first book by that author, chances are you got it for free.

And, at least in my case, he's right. I borrowed my first Connie Willis book from my mother-in-law, my first Jasper Fforde from my mother, my first Gwen Bristow from the library (and my second, third, fourth and fifth since her books were out of print and it took me a while to track down good copies to buy.) If you extend the concept of "free books" to used bookstores (from which authors get no royalties), I got my first Jennifer Chiaverini for "free" too. Even my first set of the Chronicles of Narnia was a Christmas gift from my uncle.

And yet, when you look at my shelves full of hardcovers, those are the authors you'll see. In many cases a single free book led me to purchase multiple hardcovers. (In the case of The Chronicles of Narnia I now have two complete hardcover sets since it took me so long to find a set that was numbered in the "right" order.)

Of course, there are exceptions to that trend. I have purchased books on a whim, or on the recommendation of booksellers. I can even think of one that I purchased just based on the Publisher's Weekly review, but perhaps these are the exceptions that prove the rule.

In Gaiman's case, he found that when he gave away a digital copy of one book, it led to increased sales of all of his books... and when the promotion ended, sales returned to normal.

Of course, in the case of a prolific author like Gaiman, giving away a single book may be like giving away a single potato chip... it's a gift that will make the recipient come back for more. For those of us with fewer titles to our name, giving away one book might be akin to giving away the entire bag.

There is so much more to this issue, not the least of which is the impact e-books are having on bookstores. It's a complicated issue, and one that I doubt we will fully understand for a few years. In the meantime, all I can do is hope that the future holds a sustainable market for authors, and that readers continue to support the writers they enjoy.

I know I will.

What about you? How do you feel about e-books, DRM, and the potential of piracy? Who are your favorite authors, and how did you first encounter their work?


  1. This was really good Emily, I really like your writing. What do you think of the issue that DRM locks us into a device, and possibly never really "owning" a book. I know that the music industry uses the argument that when you "buy" music, you're really just renting it. I don't think I feel the same way about books.

  2. I'm not sure I even feel that way about music. I mean, if I buy a CD, I own it. It's mine. Same with a physical book. So, why should digital books and music be different? If we buy something (and they all call it "buying" don't they?) then it should be ours for good.

    However, we are still bound by copyright laws, and the problems with the music industry came when people distributed the music they owned in violation of copyright. If each person who purchased a CD sold it, or gave it, to one other person, that wouldn't have been a problem. The problem was that people made the music available to hundreds of other people in violation of the law.

    The overreaction of the music industry to file sharing is well documented, including their idea that we're just "renting" what we buy. But, if you buy a digital book or song, shouldn't you be allowed to sell that one copy to someone else just as you would be able to sell a CD or a physical book?

    The trouble is, if I buy a song or e-book and sell it to you, what's to keep me from keeping my own copy of the file? Other than a desire to follow copyright laws, not much.

    Unfortunately, there's no obvious "solution" to this problem. At least, if there is, I lack the computing skills to see it.

    As for being locked into a particular device, it is my hope that this will become less and less of an issue. Recently, Google eBooks has been partnering with independent bookstores to enable to them to sell e-books for every e-reader except for the Kindle. As a Kindle owner, it bothers me that I can't support my local bookstores when I purchase e-books. I'm hoping that either Google will eventually release their books in the .mobi format, or Kindle will open itself up to read .epub files.

    As far as the books I purchase in .azw format from the Kindle store not being transferable to, say, a Sony Reader if I choose to get one in the future... well, I guess I can't get too upset about that. After all, if I purchased a book in hardcover and wanted a shelf full of paperbacks, the book I purchased in the past isn't going to become a paperback just because what I wanted changed. I suppose that's just part of the deal we made when we purchased the .azw books in the first place.

    (Of course if I were dealing with physical books I could sell them, give them away, or donate them to the library. With e-books, I don't yet have those options.)

    If I change e-readers, I'll just have to decide to either sacrifice those books, read them on my computer and/or phone, or keep a Kindle on hand to read them when I want to. Good thing the prices keep dropping.

  3. One publisher is now talking about limiting the number of times a library can loan an e-book to 26. If the library purchased a hardcover copy of the book, I would expect more than 26 people could read it before it fell apart. (I'm not sure that would be true for mass market paperbacks.) They treat the purchase of an e-book more like buying a copy of software--with an end user license that only permits so many computers/e-readers to run the program.

    It's a complex issue. I am sure we'll see a lot of different permutations on protecting authors', publishers', and readers' rights.

  4. I read the same thing, and find the matter rather interesting. On one hand, as I expressed above, it seems weird to think of purchasing a "license" to an e-book instead of purchasing a book. On the other hand, I can understand the concern that a library that would have purchased 10 copies of a physical book for their readers might only purchase 1 e-book instead, knowing that the e-book will last forever.

    26 readers does seem low, but I can't really say whether it is low. The idea that the book would only be good for a year is troubling, but I really don't know how well a book would hold up to 26 readings... I have some books that have barely stood up to one or two readings.

    One thing I would be interested to know is how libraries decide how many copies of a book to buy. Anyone know?